Posted by: coloradokiwi | July 11, 2008

The Long Revolution: Redux

Writing in the 1850’s, Karl Marx predicted that capitalism would eventually collapse on itself due in part to the severity of its own contradictions, abetted by a great awakening among the proletariat that they were being exploited.  Contrary to popular belief, Marx didn’t think capitalism was the worse thing evah, but rather a stage in human development that, while still exploitative, was a considerable improvement over feudalism.  

ANYWAY, his thesis has been elaborated on in myriad ways, from the brutal (Leninism, Maoism, Stalinism) to the sophisticated yet utterly un-implemented in governmental or regulatory ways (Western Marxism, Cultural Studies, Weberian sociology, etc.).  Although there are crucial differences among these different takes on marxism, one thing has remained more or less consistent (way over-simplified, obviously):  capitalism, or at least a particular definition of capitalism, has too many inherent contradictions to keep going.  What I would like to stress here is not that these observations have proven to be wrong (which is the case in some instances, not so much or as clearly so in others).  But rather, that the belief here has been largely that should capitalism collapse on itself, this collapse will be staked out almost exclusively in the social sphere:  the uprising of the proletariat, or the unworkability of certain policies, etc.  What we may be seeing now, however, is that capitalism could collapse on itself due only in small part to the social and regulatory sphere; the Samson in the temple may in fact be the most basic thing of all:  the earth’s resource capacity.

Let’s look at some trends of ill portent first.  There is this article, in which the end of capitalism is explicitly predicted (well, in snarky terms), which is really what inspired me to post this.  First, the gap between rich and poor in this country, and in fact in a global sense, is increasing.  Next, we have unsustainable markets which are created for and by this wealthy elite.  Far from “re-investing” their wealth, as trickle-down supporters would have you believe, they are either dumping it into ostensibly capital-increasing ponzi schemes (which is the sort of speculation that caused the home loan meltdown and may be a significant part of high oil prices now), or lavishing it on niche, ancillary items like Crystal and the like:  items that, while very expensive, don’t actually employ many people or move the money around very much.  Meanwhile, such items (and their accruement and the behavior associated with them) gobble up tremendous resources, in terms of both material and energy (particularly the latter).  There are also a number of regulatory behaviors that, in their short-sighted implementation to increase profit margins and stock portfolios, collapsed (or will collapse) as soon as some of the fundamentals kick in, like (ahem) stagnant wages mixed with skyrocketing energy costs.

But these are merely the signs of, at worst, depression.  Depressions can certainly threaten capitalism (as the last one did), but are somewhat unlikely on their own to knock the whole thing down.  However, there are other rather major issues at play here.

For starters, the entire global economy as we know it runs on oil.  We need oil for nearly all transport.  We need oil to harvest crops.  We need oil to make plastics, which have become not merely the stuff of various consumer goods, but vital for food storage, machine components, etc.  We need oil in order to create and maintain the energy plants that provide for us electricity.  And on and on.  And the thing is, supply is not keeping pace with demand.  Now, it seems apparent that two significant factors in current oil prices are the weakened dollar (since the basis for oil prices is the US dollar) and speculation in oil markets.  That said, the economies in South and East Asia are booming dramatically, which means not only more oil for energy and food production, but also transit and consumer goods:  a new middle class, stretching from India through Thailand and Vietnam, and into China, is starting to consume as we do. In short:  we are or will shortly be running out of oil.

But oil isn’t the only thing in short supply.  We are also running out of water.  Without hefty supplies of water and oil, at least by current practices, we cannot grow enough food (and there is already a worldwide food crisis).  We are also all but out of precious minerals that are vital to our current way of life.  This would be worrying enough without sabre rattling in the already clusterfucked Middle East, the specter of rolling droughts and/or destructive storms as a result of climate change, severely depleted ocean life, and continued heavy logging in the rainforests.  Um, just to name a few things.

So let’s go back through the list of things that we’re quickly running out of, with no globally integrated contingency plan:  oil, water, grown food, wild food, minerals, trees…and that’s just stuff that even the most wingnut pro-business wankers would agree to put on the list of “important” things.  And this is happening regardless of whether there is nuclear war in the Middle East or whether global climate change will bring us to our knees. 

What’s particularly insane and galling is this:  we have the technology to make most of these problems go away right away.  We have a huge array of burgeoning energy solutions ready to go right now.  There are a number of ways that we can conserve and recycle our water.  There are plans in the works to build urban “skyfarms,” in which we could efficiently grow wholly organic, hydroponic produce for either fuel or food. We have the capacity to deliver food and medicine to any part of the world that we like, in more than enough quantity to satisfy the needs of desperate people.  Sadly mining asteroids probably won’t solve the mineral problem, but we can reclaim and recycle a lot of that, too.  

So, what’s the problem?  Greed, stubbornness, and ignorance.  The populace at large has basically no idea about any of this.  There are vested interests (the greedy bastards) who have no intention of having the reforms we need move ahead.  And in some instances, it’s simple inertia:  people are only doing what they do because this is what they do or have “always” done.

But you know, there’s also this:  it may be too late already, because the money required to make these changes may already be long gone.  Where will our government get the money to restructure our infrastructure, when most of that money is, in its literal form, oxidizing amidst rubble in the Middle East?  How will private citizens put solar panels on their homes without being able to get a home equity loan?Who will finance the construction of skyfarms if the banks are liquidated, agribusiness opposes them, and mere mortals have no capital?  And so on and so forth.  The only wealth that actually exists is concentrated in things that will shortly have no value, or has already been expended.    

I confess that I’m somewhat torn about all this.  There is a part of me that really hopes the whole thing falls down, just to keep it all from getting so much worse.  On the other hand, I grew up in this era, and I am raising a child in this era, and this is something that post-apocalyptic scenarios almost never address (except for Reign of Fire):  how can we, saturated in pop culture, the net, and a sense of globality made possible by our current state of technology and economy, relate to our barbarian progeny?  (This may be the subject of another post:  how to tell grandpa stories about the old days that make a damn lick of sense.) 

Anyway, I think we’re in for either humanity’s greatest triumph, or its greatest failure.  Which will unfortunately depend a great deal on people much rare and more powerful than you or I.  My advice:  vote, then get drunk.  So, with apologies to T.S. Eliot:

This is the way the world ends,

This is the way the world ends,

This is they way the world ends

Not with a bang, but a series of slobbery convulsions and quasi-volcanic hemorrhaging. 



  1. I’m (perhaps ignorantly) optimistic about the whole thing. My 3-beer buzz tells me it’s a helluva privilege to know (or at least believe) that we’ve lived through what might be the most prosperous era humans have seen and probably won’t see again for another few centuries.

    Granted, the child-rearing among us might not share the same sentiment, but I like the idea of things being torn down so that they may be rebuilt again in a much better way.

    And because the major concern (oil) is the very lifeblood of humanity, it gives me hubristic hard-on to think that someday, our ingenuity will overcome that addiction with a virtually endless supply of of renewable energy and cool technology.

    It will be hot, that’s for damn sure, and perhaps the population will be decimated by then, but there are far to many of us greedy bastards on this planet anyways!

    PS: Failure of regulation, I agree with, but I’m not comfortable with the blanket statement of how capitalism collapses on itself. “Greed, stubbornness, and ignorance” applied to capitalism = fail, but it seems there will always need to be a class of folks needing to be exploited at some level to keep the wheels rolling. And given the level of exploitation here in the good ol’ US of A, I bet we have a long ways to go before the proletariat develops the cojones to rise up. But what then? You’ll have to tell me about that sometime.

  2. Good points, and it’s perfectly conceivable that it will play out in the best possible way: the emergency that forces us to amend our ways, and which is our defining moment as a species.

    As for capitalism’s “collapse” and the proletariat: early marxist work (correctly) noted a series of inherent contradictions in the system, rubbing points that would eventually cause the gears to blow. But they underestimated the flexibility of the system, the degree to which tinkering could work and actually be a positive outcome for all, etc. I’m inclined to believe that “the system” will never collapse, not like that, and least of all at the hands of “the workers.”

  3. I think you’re already aware of the difference, but I see peak oil interpreted as “running out” of oil quite frequently…

    “It is important to recognize that oil production *peaking* is not “running out.” Peaking is the maximum oil production rate, which typically occurs after roughly half of the recoverable oil in an oil field has been produced.” (well worth the read – sobering, scary)

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